At Avalon School in St. Paul, teachers call the shots
Christopher Magan, Pioneer Press, May 27, 2014 – Avalon School doesn’t have a defined leader, but it’s easy to see who is in charge.
Instead of having a traditional principal, the St. Paul charter school is governed by a cooperative of the teaching staff that oversees decisions such as curriculum, budgets and training.
Teachers share administrative roles and work as a group to make decisions.
“I have no more authority than anyone in the building,” said Carrie Bakken, an Avalon teacher who also serves part time as an adviser and program coordinator. “We decide our budget; we decide our salary; we decide our benefits.”
There are about 60 so-called “teacher-led” schools now across the U.S., and the concept has growing support.
In the past year, programs where teachers play a larger role in developing policies that affect students have emerged locally at Lakeville’s Impact Academy and at the New School in Farmington.
A study by Education Evolving, a national advocate for redesigning public education in St. Paul, found 91 percent of residents believe teachers should have more control over decisions that affect student learning. Teacher-led schools also are backed by 78 percent of teachers, the survey found.
At Avalon, Bakken says, the model has resulted in happier teachers who stick around longer, parents who are more involved and increased student achievement. Parents and students feel they can have a positive impact on school policies rather than being lost in a bureaucracy.
“They know if they go to their teacher, that teacher has power — and that power trickles down to them,” Bakken said.
A sense of empowerment for students, parents and staff is a key characteristic of high-performing schools, said Barnett Barry, founder of the Center for Teaching Quality, which has partnered with Education Evolving to promote teacher-led schools.
“Schools that improve over time have high levels of trust and meaningful collaboration among students, teachers, administrators and parents,” Barry said.
While giving teachers more control has solid support, doing so may come with some caveats.
Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, said educators and parents shouldn’t discount the role administrators play in successful schools. Principals and other leaders make up an important part of the education team.
“I certainly believe a collaborative environment is where you want to be in a school,” Amoroso said. “You want to have collaboration between administrators, teachers, support staff, families and the community. I don’t think any one group can do everything on their own.”
Denise Specht, president of the state teachers union Education Minnesota, said teachers want more control over their classrooms. For that to happen in a meaningful way, a broad overhaul of the system might be needed.
“Educators have lots of things they would change,” Specht said. “If there were more teacher-led schools with greater emphasis on learning and less on standardized tests, it would require a new system of accountability.”
Bakken and other supporters of the concept want to spread the word about teacher-led schools in the hopes it will encourage more flexibility so teachers can play a growing role in school governance.
“I think it would be great if there was support for it to happen in every school district, creating it as an option for school districts,” Bakken said. “There has to be flexibility. I feel like Avalon has always been trying to fit itself into traditional ideas.”